The number of gonorrhea cases in Walla Walla County over the last three months has more than quadrupled from the same period a year ago, prompting state health officials to declare an outbreak in the area.

The county has had 27 cases of the sexually transmitted disease from April through June. That compares to six cases during the same period in 2018, according to Washington Disease Reporting System information reported by the Washington State Department of Health.

So far, 52 cases have been reported in 2019 in Walla Walla County, surpassing in just the first half of the year the 51 cases reported for all of 2018.

Meghan DeBolt, the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health director, said there are no emerging trends among cases. Those reported to have it represent a variety of ages — from 17 up to mid-50s, DeBolt said. It doesn’t appear to be predominant among genders over intravenous drug users over non-drug users either, she said.

“Our big message is not who’s being affected, but everyone should be practicing preventative measures and getting tested.”

Walla Walla County is the only county in the state experiencing an outbreak, an announcement Wednesday said. DeBolt said an “outbreak” is declared when a “significant increase” in cases is reported.

“It’s important for the community to know, especially individuals who may be having unprotected sex, to use precaution,” DeBolt said Wednesday.

She said one added concern is that an increase in syphilis often follows gonorrhea.

Gonorrhea is the second most common sexually transmitted disease in the state after chlamydia, according to data posted on the Department of Health website. It is spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner.

Symptoms do not always reveal themselves, DeBolt said. Untreated though, the disease can lead to serious health consequences.

According to the announcement through Walla Walla County Heath Department, gonorrhea bacteria normally infect the mucous membranes of the reproductive tract. They can also infect the mucous membranes of the eyes, throat, mouth and rectum.

Untreated gonorrhea, the department warns, can lead to numerous complications that include sterility, joint infections, blindness, and increased risk of acquiring other sexually transmitted diseases.

DeBolt said those who have had unprotected intercourse should reach out to their primary care provider for testing.

Through Washington’s Expedited Partner Therapy program, sex partners of an infected individual can receive treatment without being tested or seen by health care providers, DeBolt said.

Health officials said the outbreak here comes as STD rates rise across the country. That especially includes strains of drug-resistant gonorrhea.

In 2006, doctors had five recommended ways to to treat gonorrhea, the announcement said. But now only one remaining treatment option is left.

The steep and sustained increases in sexually transmitted diseases during the last five years are unlike anything seen in the last two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Health officials encourage those who are sexually active to get regular tests for STDs and to use condoms if they are at risk.


Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, or on Twitter at

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.